Colonialism Essays and Criticism

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Empowerment and Disintegration as Central Themes

(Literary Movements for Students)

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The literature of Colonialism is often unpleasant, or at least challenging, to read. Even after most European countries had abandoned the practice of slavery, which eventually was deemed barbaric by public opinion, the taking of territory and the imposition of new governments were considered jewels in the crown of the second British Empire. Yet the era of “New Imperialism” was short-lived. In practical terms it ended with the start of World War I, but the imperial age also waned as public support for colonization declined. As the literature of Colonialism demonstrates, ambiguity and paradox characterize colonial discourse. What forces underlie that paradox?

It is perhaps no accident that the increasing momentum in imperialist history is echoed in the rapid developments in the history of psychology and psychiatry during the nineteenth century. Though no historian has proven a connection, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that increased encounters with other peoples would give rise to questions about the nature of humanity. The discipline of anthropology emerged from these questions— the Royal Anthropological Institute was founded in 1871—but the existing sciences of mankind also grew. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, scholars including Alexander Bain, Franz Brentano, William James, and John Dewey began defining their discipline, seeking to describe in scientific terms the relationship between emotion and the will, states of consciousness and unconsciousness, and human mental development. In the field of psychiatry, Freud began developing his theories of the unconscious, where humans are ruled by animal instincts that must be tempered by reason or punishment. Concurrently, Darwin began publishing his series of works on evolution and natural selection. Indeed, to some extent the notion of the “survival of the fittest” grew out of the travels of his friend Alfred Wallace through Malaysia. Darwin too wrote about the emotions in scientific terms, publishing The Expression of Emotion in 1872. In that work he discussed the communication of animals and how their various signals reveal the foundations of the human expression of emotion.

Such discoveries were cause for optimism. As the Industrial Revolution surged forward, it seemed that science and technology held the keys to ever greater wealth and progress. Outmoded superstitions and needless self-repression could be cast aside. The dawn of a new century and the death of Queen Victoria contributed to the sense of a bold new era dominated by the power of man. At the same time, however, the new science of human nature seemed to create as many questions as it purported to answer. Not surprisingly, the notion of agnosticism, or the belief that ultimate reality, or God, is unknown and unknowable, sprang from the followers of Darwin. The scientific search for man’s origin led only to a clouded mystery, far more ambiguous than traditional notions of humankind’s place in the universe. Thought and emotion, even action, appeared to be ruled by forces even more remote than a heavenly deity—at best, the nervous system, at worst, the murky recesses of the unconscious.

An obvious literary response to and reflection of this paradox is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, long celebrated as a mirror for the fragmented modern man. But Conrad’s antiheroes are not the only characters of colonialist literature who experience that joint pull toward both power and disintegration. Arguably, that contradictory movement is an essential part of much of the literature of Colonialism. Haggard’s She and Kipling’s Kim, not examples of Conrad’s Modernism, nonetheless similarly reveal aspects of the paradoxical modern self. As in Heart of Darkness, in these novels contact or confrontation of man’s animal nature, represented by untamed wilderness or untamed “primitives,” draws the protagonist in conflicting directions.

In She both Leo Vincy and the narrator Holly find themselves tempted by...

(The entire section is 10,016 words.)